Dear Pastor, Why Not Preach the Word?

One of my favorite radio hosts is always reviewing sermons, and I love it. So it made me wonder: why don’t you, dear pastor, preach the Word?

  1. Do you think that your ideas are wiser than God’s? No? Then preach the Word.
  2. Do you fancy your stories to be more entertaining than God’s Word? No? Then preach the Word.
  3. Do you find your topical sermons to be more directly applicable to people’s lives? Never! It canot be that you are a better exegete than the Holy Spirit! Preach the Word.
  4. Do you think your pop culture references are better connections than those inspired of the Spirit? No? Then preach the Word.
  5. Do you long to see souls saved from sin, death, and hell? God promises only one means, so preach the Word.
  6. Do you want to see Jesus Christ exalted over your own means, methods, and mole-hills? If not, leave the ministry. If so, preach the Word.
  7. Do you want to see Christ’s church upbuilt? Then preach the Word.
  8. Do you want to see your wife and children saved, strengthened, and sustained until the end? Your family vacation stories won’t do it. Preach the Word.
  9. Do you struggle with pride in your ministry? Only one means slays pride, so preach that Word.
  10. Do you care about the gospel ministry more than anything else you could give your life to? You’d better, so preach the Word.

There Ain’t No “Man Sauce”

I was talking to my students the other day about the Christian doctrine of manhood and womanhood, found preeminently in Genesis 1:27:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

What we learn here is at least three key points:

  1. God is the creator of man, and He gives us a God-centered meaning. We are not self-created nor self-determining. From the beginning, autonomous humanity is a contradiction in terms.
  2. God created male and female in His own image. Both male humans and female humans glorify God by their respective designs. Men and women are different by design and yet united in their purpose to glorify their Creator.
  3. God created male and female persons from the beginning. God never thought of Adam as an gender-less being, only later to add on the “man sauce.” God never thought of Eve as an androgynous person, later deciding to dip her in a “lady potion.”

The fact that God created two genders, alike in purpose but different in design, means that from the beginning He conceived of us as gender-centric humans. All that we are, in the personhood-identity sense, is wrapped up in our identity as either male or female, but not both and not neither.

To put a point on it, God never thought of you as X person and later decided you would be a man or a woman. He always conceived of you as either a man or a woman because your gender is intrinsic to your personhood.

Our world would avoid an army of confusions if we understood that gender is not an afterthought, not an add-on. It is essential as males and females made in the image of God.

Archives: “Do Stuff” Still Isn’t the Gospel

Talking with a friend tonight, we were both reminded of the great glory of the grace of God in the gospel. God requires not that we “do stuff” to earn His favor or His forgiveness, but commands us to trust Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternal favor. The gospel isn’t that we “do stuff,” but that Jesus has already done all we need.

Here’s a rundown:

  1. Jesus Taught Justification by Faith Alone
  2. Did Jesus Teach Justification by Works?
  3. What Preaching the Gospel Is, and Isn’t
  4. Matthew 23: More Reasons “Do Stuff” Isn’t the Gospel
  5. “Do Stuff” Isn’t the Gospel
  6. Drink Deeply of Jesus Christ
  7. Hate at the Bottom of Your Heart
  8. Opinions We Make Into Law
  9. Is Your Church Characterized by Commands or Christ?

My prayer is always that we treasure Jesus Christ more through believing the gospel.

Afflicting the Unconverted

Mike McKinley’s Together for the Gospel 2012 talk about preaching to self-deceived unbelievers in our churches is full of gems. Here’s one:

“[Self-help teaching] only creates high-functioning citizens of hell.”

The whole thing is worth listening to, particularly if you don’t realize the effect of so-called “cultural Christianity.”

As McKinley reminds us, Christianity is a radical thing, not something you slide into because it’s convenient. It is our job, as believers, to help people see their true spiritual state.

A New Creation Like a Loaded Arrow

Another one of the most misquoted/misused passages in the Bible has to be 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; behold, the new has come.” People tend to explain this passage in one of two inadequate ways:

  1. Blank: This way says, “Look, you’re new! Everything has changed! You’re a different person, better, invigorated, alive!” But this way fails to explain what this new creation entails.
  2. Glorified: This way emphasizes the newness of this re-creation, “You won’t suffer any more! You’re a new creation, just like the heavens and the earth!”

Now look at the context. Verse 15 says explicitly, “And [Christ] died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

Note the purpose statement here: “That those who live might no longer live for themselves for him who for their sake died and was raised.” This purpose of Christ’s death, which re-creates believers, has a negative element and a positive element.

  • Negative: Christ’s death and resurrection accomplish repentance for us to turn from our former way of life. And what was that evil way of life? Living for ourselves.
  • Positive: Christ’s death and resurrection further buy grace for us for the faith to live for Christ, our substituting Savior.

The problem with the common explanations of 2 Cor. 5:17, then, is that these fail to focus the new creation on Jesus Christ. Verse 15 speaks through the ages: “that those who live might no longer live for themselves for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

This is the new creation: not money or health or more energy but an all-encompassing, sin-slaying love for Jesus Christ. We’re not blank creations nor do we yet have glorified bodies; we’re loaded arrows headed for Christ our Treasure.

Good Deeds And/Or Gospel?

I intentionally inverted the order in the title, because Paul gives us the correct connection in Titus 3:4-8:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness,
but according to his own mercy,
by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that being justified by his grace
we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things,
so that those who have believed in God
may be careful to devote themselves to good works.
These things are excellent and profitable for people.

As someone who struggles to be devoted to “good works” that are “excellent and profitable for people,” hearing a ton of “do better” from well-meaning advisors, it is refreshing and life-giving that God doesn’t do that here.

Let me repeat: the Lord of the universe, all-wise and powerful, full of zeal for His glory and compassion for His children, doesn’t just tell us to “be devoted to good works” first. Instead, He teaches his leaders to remember the gospel (v.4-7): that God saved us in His goodness, not because of our own, through the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, who justifies us and gives us a sure hope of eternal life. Then, because of this, he wants us to be zealous for good works.

Note the order: gospel, then good works. Gospel then good works. It’s not the other way around.

When people have a “works” problem, they really have a heart problem, and only the gospel addresses the heart. Good works can “adorn” the gospel (Titus 2:10), but never are the gospel.

So, when I fail in good works, remind me of the gospel. Remind me of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to helpless sinners like me. Remind me that Christ died to redeem me from lawless deeds and purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14).

Then, and only then, there is a place to explain these good deeds. But, please, don’t just tell me to do good works. That’s “do stuff.” That’s legalism. That’s not the gospel.

The Nations Are Always Bigger

Why God Wants Us to Grow a Passion for the Nations

As I longed to move overseas recently (this has been a lifelong desire, recently stoked by a teaching trip), I realized that, even when I get to whatever country foreign country God may send me to, I still won’t be in all the nations. I won’t even be ministering in two. Likely only one.

In other words, even in my desire to go to the nations, I can really only go to one at a time. The nations are always bigger than me.

For all of our evangelical talk about “reaching the nations for Christ,” there tends to be a rather individualistic (yay America!) tone to it all. It seems we’ve forgotten: the nations are always bigger than us.

And this is the way God intends the nations, as a term and as a reality, to be: always bigger. We need to know that we always need God more, need each other more, need other churches and churches from other countries more, than we had realized.

God wants us to grow a passion for “the nations” for two big reasons: to grow in our love for the God of all the nations and to feed that first love with a love for all the nations, even while we toil mainly in a single area of this vast world.

God’s design is that the pursuit of the nations undercut our “look at us!” pride and give us great hope in the God who can answer and save.

No Other Message

Thomas Jones, from a 1976 lecture, “Preaching the Cross of Christ”:

True Christian preaching must center on the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is the central doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. All other revealed truths either find their fulfillment in the cross or are necessarily founded upon it. Therefore, no doctrine of Scripture may faithfully be set before men unless it is displayed in its relationship to the cross. The one who is called to preach, therefore, must preach Christ because there is no other message from God.

[Quoted in Bryan Chappell, Christ-centered Preaching, p.271]

The Redeemer > The Redeemed

In his recent post,”What Does It Mean to be Biblically Balanced?” Tullian Tchividjian explains how the Bible places a premium on the gospel:

The emphasis of the Bible is on the work of the Redeemer, not on the work of the redeemed.

Sin’s Rigor Mortis in My Kitchen

or “Why I’m a Bad Husband: How Sin Ruins with a Man’s Communication

One of the things that happened through sin and because of sin in the Garden was that the man and woman started fighting, blaming, and hating each other. (If you read closely, actually, it’s happening while Satan tempts Eve. Adam just stands there! So passive.)

Adam and Eve now will fight over leadership. They will go to war with each other in violent and escapist ways. They will wall each other off with stiff-arms, absent emotions, browbeating, and even extreme physical force. They will hate instead of love.

One of the ways this affects me is that, because of my sin, I often prefer not to communicate very clearly. And, if I’ve learned anything about communication, it’s that, if it doesn’t start most problems, it sure can solve many. But I’d rather not communicate. I’d rather keep to myself. I’d rather leave my family in the kitchen while I do my own thing.

What’s Daddy doing? No one’s sure.

Maybe you’ve seen the same things:

  • A father at the park who’d rather play on his IDrone than with his own children.
  • A husband who passively follows his wife around the store looking like a frightened puppy.
  • A grandfather who sits quietly and lets grandma do all the leading at family events.

What do these men have in common with me? They’d rather not communicate.

We would rather not communicate because communication and leadership require you to give yourself up to be criticized, questioned, ignored, or disobeyed. Every man, woman, and child in the universe has the pride of a thousand actors, crying, “Me! Me! Listen to Me! Look at me” when it comes to speaking out, but men particularly take offense at these negative responses (criticism, questioning, ignoring, disobedience, etc.) to their leadership. We take these things as a slap in the face, a cruel joke, or a cause for physical retaliation.

So our pride keeps us from speaking. We’d rather be silent than slammed, quiet than questioned, reserved than ridiculed. But leadership is precisely as Jesus intended: great sacrifice as great service to others that points to the greatness of God. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:44-45).

As men, we don’t like that. As someone somewhere has said, we want the crown without the cross. We want the acclaim without the agony and pain. We want the adoration without the humiliation.

But Jesus told us: it won’t be so for us. God has charged us men with leading our families and those otherwise in our charge. We’re His. So we must speak, speak clearly, speak love, speak the truth, suffer for it, and by grace through faith be saved in the end.

Sin still shakes its death quakes in my kitchen and in my heart. But sin is dead in me, because Christ lives again.

“Our Religion is What We Do”

An Investigation into the Ethos of One Mainline Liberal Protestant Non-Profit

Mainline liberal Protestantism has a lot of ills, which are better chronicled and dissected elsewhere; but, in a recent conversation, one came to the forefront. This is how it went:

  • Mainline liberal Protestant leader: We want you to understand that we are a Christian organization, but we’re not religious.
  • Me: What does that mean?
  • MLPL: Well, we believe in the teachings of Jesus, and we teach our children about a relationship with God and a belief in a ‘higher power.’
  • Me: So what is this relationship with God based on?
  • MLPL: Our religion is who we are, it’s what we do, it’s how we live.

Now, to understand the context, we need to back up. This organization for which the MLP leader spoke does present itself as a Christian operation, even taking their name from one of Christ’s miracles. As with many Christian social aid organizations, they receive donations from both individuals and Christian organizations, including (in all likelihood) several local churches.

So, at the very least, churches that are supposed to beacon the gospel are support this organization instead. But, someone might read this and say, what’s so bad about that?

Deceptive and Disorienting
From the first statement, I knew where we were headed: this leader meant to confuse and mislead people by her use of terms. To say “we are Christian, but not religious,” in her own usage, means that Christ is a personal tiny-idol who has no bearing on their operation but to be a prayer cuckhold.

Now, this is surely worth another post, but only in the Bible belt could we countenance such Christ-hating lies (see below) with a smile. Only in the South could such a leader raise money under the name of Jesus, then turn around and spit on His name. And to have the gaul to say that this is the essence of “Progressive Christianity.”

“We’re a Christian organization, but we’re not religious,” only means, “We want everyone outside to think we’re Christian, but our program will refuse to follow Him so as to remain acceptable to all the unbelievers involved. We are dry water, living death, holy idolatry.”

Anti-Truth and Anti-Theology
The second statement, that this organization holds to the teachings of Jesus and teaches students about a persona dei non descripta and their relationship with him (her? it?), is a clarifying summary of many MLP’s approach to truth and theology. This is to say, that in any biblically recognizable way, many don’t believe in truth or theology.

“Whoa! That’s a big blanket statement! Aren’t you being unfair?” Well, with respect to this one conversation’s context and intent, no. To this particular leader of this particular organization, the Bible’s truth had no bearing on her leadership, the program’s goals, and the lives of their students. Worse, this truth had long been divorced from the Christ who is its depth of meaning and rich fountain of life:

  • Jesus is the Truth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” (John 14:6).
  • Christ is the Storehouse of wisdom and knowledge: “In whom [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” (Colossians 2:3).
  • Christ is the personal revelation of God’s truth: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” (John 1:17).
  • Truth leads back to Christ: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15).

In other words, an organization who cares not to describe God according to the Bible cares not for the real Jesus Christ, who is the personal fulfillment and embodiment of that truth.

God-less, Christ-less Religion
This all brings us to the last statement, which now is particularly revealing. When pressed on the basis for her beliefs, all this leader could answer was: “The religion I’m talking is all about me! Me! Not God! Me! It’s how I live, not who He is!” To her, following Jesus had nothing to do with faith, but everything to do with works.

To put it another way, she had all cart and no horse. The cart could be hitched to anything; here it is hitched to a vague deity of your own choosing, who happens to look a lot like you. Such a statement is me-magnifying idolatry of the lowest order.

Me-centered religion is no religion in the old sense of the term at all. It is no face-to-face-ness with God, no worship of Him at all. It excludes God and His Christ for an image made in the likeness of man. This leader’s god was found in the mirror, not the Scriptures.

Stop the Charade; Warn the Wicked
Because of these things, I’ll be writing the board of this particular organization to notify them of the God-hating things that they have authorized in the name of Jesus. No organization should take Christ’s name and spit on His face in the Word, and we must rebuke the wicked. “But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul,” (Ezekiel 33:9).

How to Test Yourself

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” One way we can begin to understand our own darkness, foolishness, and disease is to ask a few questions:

  • Does your heart right now witness to you that you have left God’s goodness for other things?
  • What thing in your life do you love most?
  • What is the one thing you would keep if you had to lose everything else?

These questions get to the root of who and what our hearts love most. As 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” The Bible describes people who do not love God most as:

  • blind
  • deaf
  • foolish
  • hypocritical
  • lost in the world
  • full of darkness
  • without hope
  • wicked
  • ignorant
  • God-less
  • dead

Some of the things that come out of these peoples’ hearts are:

  • greed, stealing, swindling
  • lies
  • slander
  • racism
  • prejudice
  • unjust practices
  • lust, sexual immorality, adultery, homosexuality
  • hatred, anger, violence
  • divisions, strife
  • grudges, unforgiveness, bitterness, rivalries
  • envy, jealousy
  • drunkenness, drug abuse, gluttony
  • love of money
  • love of people’s approval
  • love of self
  • love of music or sports or shopping or power

Do some of these describe your heart?

Whether God has changed you to life or you are still dead in your sin, your heart witnesses to you that many of these things describe your heart apart from Jesus Christ. For some of you, several of these characterize your life right now. Before we move on, take a moment to let the ugliness and sin in your heart weigh on you. Think over how awful it is that we hate the One Who made us for Himself. Think about how perfect and good He is and how evil and ugly we are before Him.

Jesus says in Mark 7:20-23, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” How defiled we are! How our hearts lead us away from God!

[Excerpted from Gospel Root and Fruit, tentative title, forthcoming]

To the Wicked, Grace Doesn’t Come First


[photo by Mr. Stein on flickr]

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a fellow school administrator about how to deal with our lawless students. She firmly believed that we, as educators, ought to give students as much grace as possible before giving them law. This, to her, was exactly how we “show Christ’s love.” I disagreed then, and I still do. Here’s why: this principle is the exact opposite of God’s.

God gives law to the proud and grace to the humble. As Ray Comfort says, “You will never see the Lord Jesus giving grace to a proud, arrogant, self-righteous person. He doesn’t do it.” But, where Ray applies it mainly to evangelism (and we should), I’m applying it to all of our dealings with others, particularly with children.

Thinking Like a Child
When I was a child (I might say with Paul), I thought as a child. I hated law. And as a young adult, I mostly still did. I remembered my angry chaffing at “legalistic” teachers and principals and didn’t want to be like them. But, even as a child, I knew it was worse for teachers to give a pass to a prideful child (sometimes even their own child!) instead of giving them their lawful consequences.

But as time in the classroom went on, I became a father, too. And I learned the truth that, in this fallen world, everything still runs on rules and regulations. It’s just the way things go, because that’s the way God wants the world to operate. He wants us to learn the principle of sowing and reaping. He wants us to learn His economy of sin and consequences. He wants us to know about motives, actions, and just deserts.

False Grace Barricades True Righteousness
Isaiah makes this perfectly clear when he preaches in Isaiah 26:9-10:

    When your judgments are in the earth,
        the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
    If favor is shown to the wicked,
        he does not learn righteousness;
    in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly
        and does not see the majesty of the LORD.

Here’s the proposition: If grace (“favor” in verse 10) is given to the wicked, then that false showing of grace obscures the wicked man’s ability to “learn righteousness.” In other words, to the arrogant, a lying grace barricades true righteousness. And, since true righteousness is the display of God’s glory, this lying grace further blinds him from “see(ing) the majesty of the LORD,” (verse 10).

Therefore, any insistence on grace to the proud is:

  1. A lie. Grace to the proud is not true grace.
  2. Dishonorable and degrading to the name and character of God. It mangles His majesty and rends His righteousness.
  3. Harmful and dishonest to the proud student. This slithering, mangling “grace” teaches no grace at all, but pictures a cuckhold of a God who winks at our sin.

Law Isn’t Evil
But it feels so “mean” to use the law, right? The law is good, Paul says, when it is used lawfully. It is for the evil, adulterous, dishonest, greedy, sexually immoral, violent, and oppressive people in our midst. We ought to use it. We must use it.

But using the law doesn’t mean that we must use it with a legalistic spirit. The law must be the tutor to bring people to Christ. So use it, teachers, to show your own conscience and that of your students that we have all failed before God’s holiness and stand in need of His mercy. Then, your consequences must be fair, just, quick, and loving, given with an eye toward repentance and restoration.

The Use and Consequences of Law
Consequences should match the crimes. For example, when a student skips class, she should receive a zero for the day and come back after school to make the class up, missing any extracurriculars or other commitments. When a student steals something, he needs to return it, pay it back again, and receive a in-school manual labor suspension. When a student cheats on a test, he has earned the right to get a zero on that test, no opportunity to replace the grade, and a short-term suspension. Anything less than these consequences teach students a lie about God’s character and His economy in the world.

But all of these very fair consequences must also be used redemptively, with the stated goal of repentance (reparations and consequences aren’t necessarily repentance) and restoration. Once the student deals with her consequences and returns, she must be as full a part of the school as her own attitude will allow.

The Economy of God
These things must be so because this is how God has structured our lives in a fallen world. We need the law to teach us right from wrong, we need it to establish boundaries and standards in our lives, and we need it to teach us that we are unable to live up to God’s holiness. Indeed, we must never think that anything but the blood of Jesus can save us.

Proverbs 22:15 says it this way:
    Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
        but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.

And all the parents, youth workers, and teachers say, “Amen.” We must discipline and apply the law and its consequences, as is appropriate regarding our calling and relationships, in order to teach people the majesty of God.

When a law-breaker learns to stand before the enthroned King and say, “Woe is me! I am undone!” then he is well-positioned, the Bible says, to cry out for mercy to the Son of David, the King of Israel, the Christ of God, who kept the law in the place of everyone who repents and believes.

So don’t give the wicked in your midst a false grace, give them the very real law and its consequences, that it would train them toward Jesus Christ.

Christians Believe the Bible

A recent conversation with someone claiming to be a Christian but rejecting most of the Bible reminded me that, according to God’s Word itself, a Christian is someone who believes the Bible, at its face value, in the way it was written. To the Christian, every word is precious: “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (Psalm 119:25).

To wit:

  1. Jesus based His life and preaching on the (Hebrew) Bible (Matthew 19, Luke 4, John 10, et al.).
  2. When He was raised, Jesus taught His disciples the entire message of the Old Testament as His own gospel story (Luke 24).
  3. Acts regularly describes Christians as those who believe God’s Word (Acts 15:7, 17:11, etc.).
  4. The gospel message alone is called God’s “power” (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 1:18).

God has already spoken the Word; we have no business changing or maiming it. Therefore, let us remember someone claiming to be a Christian, a Christ-follower, and having no concern for Jesus’ own Word, is no believer at all.

The Strength in the Waiting

Psalm 31:24

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.

This verse, indeed the Bible, strikes a strange balance. On the one hand: wait for the Lord. On the other: be strong and courageous. How do we do this? How do we wait AND be strong and courageous? That doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

We have a hard time making sense of this because we tend to think of courageous strength as self-built (wrong!) and patient waiting as passivity (wrong!). Psalm 31:24 says that courageous strength comes from waiting on the Lord, implying in turn that such holy halting is the gift of ferocious faith. Effort-laden expectation, we see, comes only from God’s mighty mitts.

While we hold onto Him, He’s truly the one holding onto us, making us strong, courageous, and watchful. So when it’s time to take courage and be strong, or it’s time to wait on the Lord, remember that our lives are always both. We await a Savior, Christ Jesus the Lord, so we can be very bold. All authority is His.

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